WASHINGTON — America's Roman Catholic bishops, wrapping up a highly intense and often emotional four-day session Thursday, departed to face uncertain reaction back home to one of the most crucial decisions made by their national organization in its 21-year history.
After nearly six hours of what was described as "sometimes agonizing" debate during a cloistered executive session--and many more hours of informal discussion--the prelates reluctantly concluded on Wednesday that they had to keep hands off a much-publicized dispute between one of their own and the Vatican that has racked the entire U.S. Catholic Church.
Despite their expressed sympathy for beleaguered Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, disciplined by the Vatican for being judged too lax in enforcing orthodox church doctrine, the prelates said through their president that the only prudent response was to unreservedly back the Pope--whatever the faithful back home might think.
"I am aware of a popular expectation" that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops "would become a kind of ombudsman for Hunthausen," the outgoing bishops' president, James W. Malone, said at a press conference closing the annual meeting here. "I'm sure they were disappointed."
In essence, Malone said, the matter was wrapped up in church law, Vatican procedures and a hierarchy of authorities untouchable by the American prelates.
They would only help Hunthausen and Bishop Donald Wuerl, the Vatican-appointed auxiliary appointed to take over much of the archbishop's authority, if the two of them--and the Holy See--asked them to step in, the bishops said.
Hunthausen, through an impassioned 21-page account of his case, presented during the closed session, had pleaded for the bishops to help solve what he called the "unworkable" situation of having to share power with the Vatican-imposed Wuerl.
But the American bishops concluded that it was beyond their jurisdiction "to review, much less judge," a case involving a diocesan bishop and the pontiff.
The Hunthausen affair, as it came to be known here, dominated the business of the prelates although their highly polished and lengthy letter on the economy topped the pre-conference agenda for the conference.
And though the intense media attention across the country had brought the Hunthausen issue into sharp focus, the bishops realized that more was at stake than simply the fate of a popular fellow bishop who had run afoul of Vatican doctrine.
The standing of the American bishops, as a collegial body, acting together but in union with the Pope, was on the line. And Hunthausen's discipline was only one of several U.S. cases protested by some Catholics. Generating wide interest and heated debate was the Vatican action stripping Father Charles E. Curran, a Catholic University professor, of his status as a Catholic theologian for views on sexual ethics considered too liberal.
Interestingly, perhaps, the other cases were not spoken about here, at least in any formal way. Understandably, the Hunthausen crisis was closer to home--if not Rome.
As Detroit Bishop Thomas Gumbleton put it, "Bishops are looking over their shoulders now, and that's not a healthy way to walk."
Each U.S. bishop was appointed by Pope John Paul II or one of his predecessors. Conceivably, what happened to Hunthausen could happen to them.
Bishop Michael H. Kenny of Juneau, Alaska, said during an informal talk with reporters Thursday that he was aware that "various groups of Catholics in this country feel the bishops caved in" by not standing up more strongly for Hunthausen.
But, Kenny, who said he was one of the few bishops who voted against the "Malone statement," added, "For the U.S. bishops as a conference to be openly critical of the Holy See would take an issue of obvious proportions of injustice."
Malone, speaking for the collective thought of the majority of the bishops on the matter, had said: "I believe it is clear the process employed by the Holy See (in the Hunthausen case) was in accord with general principles of church law and procedures . . . by proper church authorities. As such it deserves our respect and confidence."
If the bishops, then, did not delve into the merits of the Vatican's accusations in the Hunthausen affair, nor examine the process of the investigation--which Hunthausen insisted was flawed from the beginning--why was the prelates' public statement encouraging to the embattled archbishop?
In a brief response Wednesday, Hunthausen said it was "a good statement, one that has emerged from a very honest exchange of many different points of view."
And he said it was a hopeful sign, "the kind of assurance I was seeking."
According to Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and other prelates, it was not the public statement but the verbalized personal support expressed within the private meeting that buoyed Hunthausen.
"We addressed the lingering hurt that was out there," Mahony said.
And New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, an ardent Vatican loyalist, said: